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The Letter for the King
Author Tonke Dragt
Original title De brief voor de koning
Translator Laura Watkinson
Illustrator Tonke Dragt
Cover artist Tonke Dragt (original)
Country Netherlands
Language Dutch
Subject Knight-errant
Genre Fantasy
Adventure
Set in Middle Ages
Publisher Leopold, Pushkin Press
Publication date
1962
Published in English
2013
Pages 339
Awards Kinderboek van het Jaar 1963

The Letter for the King (Dutch: De brief voor de koning) is a book by the Dutch writer Tonke Dragt, first published in 1962. A sequel, Geheimen van het Wilde Woud (English: The Secrets of the Wild Wood), was published in 1965, and a collection of follow-up short stories, Het gevaarlijke venster en andere verhalen (English: The Dangerous Window and Other Stories), in 1979. De brief voor de koning was chosen as the best Dutch youth book of the latter half of the 20th century.

The book has been translated in Danish, English, German, Greek, Estonian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Czech, Spanish and Catalan.

Background

Tonke Dragt took an interest in the Middle Ages from a young age and was especially involved in reading classic English chivalric romances. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dragt worked in a secondary school as a drawing teacher. To keep the students' attention, she told short stories and usually stopped telling at a cliffhanger, after which the pupils were allowed to draw accompanying illustrations. Usually, Dragt forgot about these stories soon afterwards while creating new ones.

One day, Dragt told her students about a teenage squire who has to complete all-night vigil before he can receive his knighthood, but leaves the chapel of his vigil to answer a call for help. She said in a De Volkskrant interview:

"'Tiuri has to spend his last night as squire, before he can become knight, in a chapel with his friends. He is not allowed to speak or listen to the voices outside. In the middle of the night, a voice desperately whispers "Please, open the door!".' What would you do? I asked my students. Then they had to draw. I drew a map of the Kingdom of Unauwen and next to it the Kingdom of Dagonaut, the countries through which Tiuri travels."

The story grabbed her more than any before and at night, she decided to complete it behind her typewriter.

Plot overview

The Letter for the King is set in a fictional medieval world. In the story, a youth's adventure is externalized in a search for a letter, which results in a discovery of their own persona.

Synopsis

In the night before his accolade and ascension to knighthood, which is traditionally spent as a nocturnal vigil in a small chapel, 16-year-old squire Tiuri, son of a famous knight in the realm of Dagonaut, receives a desperate plea for help from a stranger knocking at the chapel door. Unable to refuse a call for help, he breaks the tradition and goes outside, where the stranger, an old man, hands him a sealed letter and begs him to deliver it to a knight clad in black armor and a white shield residing in a nearby forest inn. Tiuri agrees to deliver it, but upon arriving at the inn, he learns to his dismay that the knight he seeks has in the meantime been challenged by another black knight, this one with a red shield. Tracing the path the knights have taken into the forest, Tiuri finds the knight with the white shield dying, mortally wounded in a cowardly ambush. When the knight learns of Tiuri's possession of the letter, he charges him with delivering it to the neighbouring realm of the west, ruled by the wise King Unauwen, and to seek out a hermit named Menaures living in the mountains separating the two kingdoms, who would show him a secret way through the mountains. Bound by his sense of honor, Tiuri accepts the task and the ring the knight gives him in order to stress the importance of his mission, and remains with the knight until he dies.

Soon, however, Tiuri finds himself hunted by riders clad in red, the henchmen of the knight with the red shield, and is forced to flee for his life. In order to speed his progress, he claims the steed of the knight with the white shield, a formidable night-black destrier who accepts him as his new rider. He also finds himself chased by a quartet of knights in grey, who are eager to kill him for unknown reasons, and temporarily loses his horse to a band of robbers, but finds help with the childish but amicable forest-dweller Marius and the monks of a nearby monastery. He eventually makes his way to a castle named Mistrinaut, where he is found and imprisoned for execution by the Grey Knights, who (as it turns out later) were close friends of the knight with the white shield and believe Tiuri to be his murderer. However, Sigirdiwarth Rafox, the lord of Mistrinaut, and his daughter Lavinia supply Tiuri with weapons to save his life, and in the end Tiuri convinces the knights of his innocence and befriends them, especially their leader, Ristridin of the South, a famous wandering knight from Dagonaut's realm.

From Ristridin, Tiuri finally learns the name of the black knight with the white shield - Edwinem of Foresterra, a renowned hero from Unauwen's realm - and of his steed Ardanwen; the stranger who sent Tiuri on his quest turns out to be Edwinem's squire, Vokia. As it is gradually revealed, the murder of Edwinem and the letter Tiuri carries are pivotal elements in a festering conflict between the realm of Unauwen and the realm of Evielan, a kingdom south of Dagonaut's domain. The ruler of Evielan is the younger of Unauwen's twin sons, who is torn by jealousy toward his elder brother and, seeking dominion over his father's realm, has conquered Evielan to support his own ends.

In the company of the Grey Knights, Tiuri survives an ambush attempt by the Red Riders and some hired thugs, and safely reaches the base of the mountains, where he parts company with the knights. As he makes his way to Menaures' abode, he is met by a man called Jaro, who claims to be a pilgrim seeking the hermit's advice, and a short while later Tiuri ends up saving Jaro from a fatal fall into a ravine. Tiuri and Jaro later encounter Menaures and Piak, a young mountain boy whose services as a guide is offered by Menaures after he has learned of Tiuri's quest. Shortly after their departure, Jaro reveals himself to be one of the Red Riders sent to kill him, but since Tiuri has saved his life, Jaro finds himself unable to do him any harm. Before he departs, he warns Tiuri of another Red Rider, a vile and cunning individual named Slupor (Slither in the English version), who will be waiting for him in Unauwen's realm. Piak, who has overheard the conversation, pledges himself to Tiuri and his errand, and in the days that they spend crossing the mountains, the two become fast friends.

The two boys arrive safely in the realm of Unauwen, but the spies and agents of Evillan are everpresent. In the city of Dangria, the mayor, an agent and sympathizer to Evielan, attempts to imprison the boys under false pretenses, but a diversion by Piak allows Tiuri to hide long enough to memorize the contents of the letter and destroy it. While attempting to free Piak, Tiuri receives help from the disgruntled citizens who have long been displeased with the despotic mayor, although only few ever suspected him being an agent of Evielan. Piak is liberated and the mayor's true allegiance exposed, but not daring to be delayed on their errand, Tiuri and Piak run away before the newly elected provisory town council can question them.

Their next obstacle meets them at the Rainbow River in the form of a castle serving as a customs station. Without money to pay the toll, Tiuri and Piak decide to cross the river by stealth, but end up shipwrecked and captured. When Tirui is brought before Sir Ardian, the local Lord of Customs, he attempts to bargain for his and Piak's release by offering Edwinem's ring as a deposit. Upon recognizing the ring, and after learning about Edwinem's demise and that Tiuri carries an important message for the king, Sir Ardian promptly provides the two boys with an escort to the capital. Slupor manages to draw away the Custom guards and awaits Tiuri and Piak at the very gates of the capital, but his last-ditch attempt at Tiuri's life is foiled, and he is arrested.

Now able to fulfill their quest, Tiuri and Piak deliver the message the letter contained to King Unauwen. It is later revealed that the letter was a warning about the Lord of Evielan's treacherous plans which formed the core of his reconciliation attempt, since he has planned to murder his brother once the realm of Unauwen was lulled into a sense of peace and security, thereby making him the only claimant to the throne. With a heavy heart, Unauwen calls the knights of his realm to arms and rewards Tiuri and Piak for their valiant service to his kingdom.

Soon after, Tiuri and Piak depart for Dagonaut's realm, following the same path they have taken for their outward journey. After arriving at Menaures' abode, Piak, who feels torn between his friendship with Tiuri and his home in the mountains, parts company with Tiuri, who continues his return journey alone. On his way, he meets again with most of his friends and allies, including Ristridin, who invites him to his castle in the coming spring once he has completed an errand for King Dagonaut to explore the Wild Wood, a wild and desolate forest area lining the realm's southern border.

After an uneventful journey, Tiuri returns to the capital of Dagonaut's realm, where he is welcomed back by the king and his family. To Tiuri's immense surprise, and quite against his expectations to the contrary, he subsequently finds himself made a full knight; even though having broken the rules of tradition, Tiuri has proven that he already is a true knight due to his sense of honor, his dedication and compassion in accepting Edwinem's quest as his own. Tiuri's joy is completed when the very next day Piak arrives at the capital, having changed his mind and decided to join Tiuri as his friend and squire.

The story is continued in Geheimen van het Wilde Woud.

Adaptations

In 2007, it premiered as a musical theater piece. This was the second theater production based on the works of Tonke Dragt, after an adaptation of De Zevensprong.

A film based on the book, starring Derek de Lint, was released in the summer of 2008.

In 2018, it was revealed that Netflix had bought the international rights to film an English-language series based on the book. Filming took place in New Zealand and Prague. The Netflix series was released on March 20, 2020. However, it features several alterations greatly deviating from the original stories, such as the inclusion of magic, an altered background story for Tiuri, an enhanced emphasis on Lavinia's role, and several original characters.

Awards

  • 1963: Kinderboek van het Jaar (Children's book of the Year, the predecessor of the Gouden Griffel) for De brief voor de koning
  • 2004: Griffel der Griffels for De brief voor de koning (award for the best Dutch children's book of the past fifty years)

Literary sources

  • Tonke Dragt: De brief voor de Koning, 1962.
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